First Drafts

This is page two of a guide to Writing Well. Start at page one.

The goal

An artist with one great work likely doesn’t know what makes it good. If they did, they'd have more great works. So, in their case, I just appreciate the work itself.

But an artist with a streak of masterpieces, such as Christopher Nolan, is indeed a master. In that case, I try to reverse engineer their process. They clearly have one.

I believe I've engineered a reliable writing process.

Our process

The goal of your first draft is not to say things well. Save that for rewriting. Your first draft is simply for generating and connecting ideas:

This works best when you’re exploring ideas that most interest you. The more self-indulgent you are, the better your article. More on this shortly.

When you write a first draft, you write it for yourself. When you rewrite it, you write it for everyone else.
—Stephen King

The first draft process

Here’s the process you'll explore:

  1. Choose an objective for your post.
  2. Identify the talking points needed to accomplish your objective.
  3. Write a messy braindump for each point. Lean into your curiosity.
If you don't have a hard time getting your ideas onto paper, skip this page and continue to the next: Rewriting.

1. Start with your objective

Before writing, choose an objective that focuses your thinking and makes your goal clear.

Here again are the objectives from the previous page:

  1. Open people’s eyes by proving the status quo wrong.
  2. Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying. Cut through the noise.
  3. Identify key trends on a topic. Then use them to predict the future.
  4. Contribute original insights to a field through your research and experimentation.
  5. Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable.
  6. Share a solution to a tough problem.
  7. Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.

An objective reveals what your article must accomplish to be successful. You work backward from it to identify your outline.

There are two types of talking points to construct your outline. Writing your first draft is the art of generating these:

Supporting points set the stage for your argument. Resulting points explore what happens when your argument is true.

You convince readers then you open their eyes.

Example talking points

Here are example points for an essay on overcoming stress:

Or for learning a language:

2. Outline your talking points

Supporting points typically come first and resulting points typically come last. But, there is no correct outline. Hundreds of paths lead to your objective. Say as little or as much as you want.

The only requirement is that you focus on points that are novel. Content is driven by novelty.

Here’s an example outline for the objective of Challenging the status quo:

  1. State that the reader’s current view of the world is false.
    Supporting point
  2. Establish how so many people being wrong about this hurts our world.
    Supporting point
  3. Establish what’s required to get everyone to change their view.
    Supporting point
  4. Predict how the world would be different once the transition is complete.
    Resulting point
  5. Explore the exciting byproducts of the world being different.
    Resulting point

Fill in the gaps

Take a moment to examine your outline. What’s still needed to convincingly and logically tie your points together?

In the outline above, I found two gaps worth plugging:

  1. State that the reader’s current view of the world is false.
    Supporting point
  2. Provide supporting evidence for your claim.
    New supporting point
  3. Establish how so many people being wrong about this hurts our world.
    Supporting point
  4. Establish what’s required to get everyone to change their view.
    Supporting point
  5. Predict what a transitionary period would look like.
    New resulting point
  6. Predict how the world would be different once the transition is complete.
    Resulting point
  7. Explore the exciting byproducts of the world being different.
    Resulting point

More objective outlines+

As explained in my companion blog post, mental models help you logically reach your objective instead of winging your way toward it. If you wing it, you lack sturdy reasoning, which makes it harder to convince readers of your conclusion.

Consider how mental models help us approach writing objectives:

  1. Share a clever solution to a tough problem.
    → Use a mental model to identify the best solution.
  2. Distill an overwhelmingly complex topic into something digestible.
    → Create your own model to help others reason through the system.
  3. Prove the status quo wrong.
    → Use a model to study the underlying system and identify the truth.

Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying.

Identify key trends on a topic. Use them to predict the future.

Contribute original insights to a field through research and experimentation.

Distill an overwhelmingly complex topic into something digestible.

Share a clever solution to a tough problem.

Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.

3. Write your initial thoughts

Under each talking point in your outline, start by writing half-formed thoughts.

It’s more efficient to breeze through a bad first draft and improve it later than to try starting from perfection.

Your ideas will come from a few places:

It’s normal if not many ideas come to mind immediately. You’ll discover that the majority of your ideas arrive while writing—not before. You write in order to think.

You'll discover the rest of your ideas by resting and reflecting on what you’ve written. The act of writing compels your brain to draw connections between ideas.

It can’t help itself.

People think you need to be inspired to write. No, you write in order to get inspired.
—Paul Jarvis

Which of my ideas are good?

How do you know which thoughts are most valuable? What separates good from bad ideas?

The solution is to focus on ideas that are interesting or surprising. These are the ingredients of novelty. Novelty is what keeps readers reading. They tend to be:

Interesting talking points

To uncover interesting ideas, continuously make your next point whatever interests you most. Skip everything that bores you.

When something bores you, it probably bores your readers too. And if something entertains you, it probably entertains them too. You are your reader's proxy. Especially if you're writing for people like yourself.

That’s the irony of self-indulgent writing: writing for yourself is the quickest path to writing something others love.

The mistake writers make is believing expertise is required to write nonfiction. Nope, it's the rabid desire to indulge your curiosity.

Your voice

Something wonderful happens when you focus on what interests and surprises you: your voice emerges.

Readers begin to notice:

Readers love this. It makes your writing feel personal.

I just write what I want. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.
—J.K. Rowling

Surprising talking points

In addition to interesting talking points, you're also looking for surprising ideas.

Surprise is anything that contradicts what readers know or expect you to say. It makes them think, “Wow. That’s unexpected.”

You generate surprising talking points using Paul Graham’s Method: First, learn the basic knowledge of a topic. Then, if you can find new information that surprises your knowledgeable self, it’ll surprise laypeople too. You can also play detective: when you know enough about a topic to know what's not known about it, you can selectively resolve those gaps and share the discoveries.

Again, you are your audience's proxy. There's no need to guess what will surprise them. Hunt for something that surprises you, and others will be along for the ride.

When you get stuck

When ideas stop flowing, ask yourself:

  1. How can I make this point more convincing?
  2. What are the interesting implications of what I just said?

Repeatedly ask these two questions and keep moving in whichever direction interests you most.

Your outline should be specific enough to provide structure, but loose enough to not confine expansive thinking. Whenever you feel a tug pulling you away from your outline, indulge that curiosity. Pursue that adventure.

You can prune the bad stuff later.

Refer to my blog post on how to generate good ideas: Creativity Faucet.
I hated English in high school. But if they called it Thinking, then I wouldn't be as terrible of a writer as I am today.
—Quoc-Anh Vu

Summary

Here is our writing process:

  1. Choose an objective for your post.
  2. Identify the talking points needed to accomplish your objective.
  3. Write a messy braindump for each point. Lean into your curiosity.

While writing, keep these points in mind:

  1. Don’t feel constrained by your outline. Expect to discover most of your ideas throughout the writing process.
  2. Trust that what interests you is what interests your readers. If not, target an audience more like yourself.

Here's how those steps fit into our overall writing process:

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
  3. Get feedback on your intro
  4. Create an outline using your objective
  5. Explore talking points within your outline
  6. Rewrite for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue ← The next page covers this
  7. Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback
  8. Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and style

4. Optional — Write an outro

Outros are optional. If you include one, it's usually to prompt readers into action.

First, share a poignant takeaway

Identify your article’s significance by re-reading it and asking, “What was this really about? What was I trying to say?”

Distill the answer into a single, punchy sentence. Make readers think, “Ahh, yes, that's why this article was profound.”

Next, provide next steps

Now that your wisdom has resonated with readers, ask yourself, What about the world can my readers better appreciate now that they've read my article?

Share where they can go next to continue the journey they started here.

For a writing guide such as this, I might conclude by sharing bloggers whose work I enjoy. Then I might urge you to reverse engineer their articles and study what makes them great. That's how you continue your learning.

5. Rewrite

Your first draft is a sacred place for generating ideas.

Because it's while writing that you discover your best insights.

You write in order to think.

When you've squeezed every last drop from your brain, it's time to rewrite those ideas into something wonderful.

Onward.

Next page

Page III — Rewriting your first draft

Turning a braindump into gold.

Next page →